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Friday, November 19, 2010
Nuclear Spending Plan Up
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
By John Fleck
   
   
    The Obama administration on Thursday laid out a new nuclear weapons spending plan that is 20 percent higher than the budgets left by the Bush administration and 5 to 6 percent higher than the administration spending plan last spring.
   
    Included is an acknowledgment that a proposed new Los Alamos plutonium lab complex, originally budgeted at $600 million when it was approved in 2004, could cost as much as $5.8 billion by the time it is completed in 2020.
   
    The plan projects spending $85 billion over the next decade for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency that funds and oversees nuclear weapons research and development at Sandia and Los Alamos labs in New Mexico.
   
    The proposed budget increase, made public as part of the administration's campaign to win support for an arms control treaty with Russia, includes money to cover rising pension costs at Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, along with additional money for refurbishing aging nuclear weapons.
   
    The pledge to push for increased spending was unusual, coming two months before the administration's traditional February budget release.
   
    The carrot of additional money for the labs and other parts of the nuclear weapons program came with a stick, however — the suggestion that if the Senate does not act now, during the lame duck session, the chances for the additional funding may diminish.
   
    "We have an opportunity to ratify this treaty and to lock in consensus on modernization funding," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters during a Wednesday morning briefing.
   
    Clinton's comments came as Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., suggested action on the treaty be put off until next year, when a new Congress takes office.
   
    The numbers made public show continued growth in the cost of major nuclear facilities in New Mexico and Tennessee, but don't specify how the rest of the additional money would be distributed among nuclear weapons research and manufacturing sites around the country.
   
    One project singled out in the new data is the Los Alamos Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement building. Last February, federal officials said they had no solid estimate of its cost because design work is still under way, but put a $3.4 billion "placeholder" in the federal budget. According to numbers made public Thursday, with 45 percent of the design work on the building complete, the estimated project cost is now between $3.7 billion and $5.8 billion.
   
    The project is a victim of "early optimism bias," common to complex, one-of-a-kind technical efforts, according to Don Cook, the head of the Office of Defense Programs in the National Nuclear Security Administration.
   
    Cook, a former Sandia Labs manager who now oversees the agency's nuclear work, said in a recent interview that efforts are under way to come up with a clearer picture of how much the massive concrete complex will cost.
   
    One reason for the increase in estimated cost is the need to make it safe in the event of an earthquake.
   
    Critics say cost figures should be more carefully nailed down before Congress commits to the building, which would be the largest public construction project in New Mexico history.
   
    With the rising costs, a clear-eyed look at other options to meet the nuclear weapons complex is needed, said Greg Mello, head of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group. Mello's group is suing the federal government, alleging it has failed to fully consider alternatives to the project before proceeding.
   
    "It's hard to believe that at these prices there's not cheaper alternatives," Mello said Thursday.
   
    The administration also released revised numbers showing the cost of the new Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee has risen to somewhere between $4.2 billion and $6.5 billion. That is up from an estimated cost range of $1.4 billion to $3.5 billion last February.
   
    Critics have questioned whether the government can afford to build both multibillion dollar projects simultaneously. The White House, in a statement, said that is the plan. "The Administration is committed to requesting the funds necessary to ensure completion of these facilities."


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